This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

Circus Bandwagons on Parade

31 May 2013

In 1900 when John Robinson's Circus came to town, the parade was led
by a bandwagon pulled by a team of 14 camels.  Who could miss that?
'Cause that's something you don't see everyday!

< Click the images to enlarge >

Daily Illinois State Register - July 17, 1900
Two weeks ago my orchestra finished our concert season in a hall adjacent to the civic sports arena where a circus (the one everyone knows) had a run of several performances. The circus started an hour early so that the two different crowds of patrons would not collide coming through the doors. One of the obstacles was a group of PeTA protestors in front of the entrance.

On the day the circus set up I happened to walk through the lower arena storage and got a glimpse of two elephants carefully screened from the world, and seemingly content to wait for the evening showtime. Almost all the production came in on trucks, but the elephants arrived rather secretively from the rail depot without fanfare or big parade. There was certainly no bandwagon pulled by 14 camels. 

In 1900 it was very different. A circus was a town's highlight of the year, and because they traveled by rail and performed in huge tent cities constructed overnight, there was always a parade down Main St. Dozens of circus promoters competed to have the biggest and most extravagant attractions. John Robinson Ten Big Shows Combined was one of the largest and had been entertaining American and Canadian audiences since 1842. By 1900 it was run by the third generation of the Robinson family and the season included a new biblical spectacle of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. This pageant needed a lot of camels. 

It was a probably no coincidence that the Robinson Circus chose the theme of Africa and camels since only a few months before in October of 1899 the 2nd Boer War had begun in South Africa. A circus this size was also admired for the way its touring logistics mirrored a military campaign. According to a Robinson circus agent's report in the New York Clipper of June 2, 1900:

The rank and file of the show numbers 282 people. Our train, which is run in two sections, numbers forty-two cars. Never in the history of the Robinson Show has it been more complete than one now finds it. Our parade is commented on by press and public unanimously as without a peer in the circus business. A thirty cage menagerie, no two of which cages are alike either in design or color. All harness and trappings are absolutely new, and visiting showmen pronounce the show at the top of the list. We are carrying a complement of two hundred and forty head of horses, fifty-eight ponies, and, with the new shipment of elephants, secured by Mr. Robinson this winter, which will reach us in about ten days, we will have a herd of seven elephants. Add to this twenty-two camels, all of which we have succeeded in harnessing together, and which form the distinguishing feature of the parade. Business has been, up to late, more than satisfactory.

But securing camels was not easy. The New York Clipper reported earlier on March 31, 1900 that: 

The John Robinson Circus lost twelve of nineteen camels by death on shipboard while en route to this port from Calcutta, India. The ship ___ safely landed seven camels and a dwarf cow on March 22.

This circus usually opened each season in mid April playing Madison Square Garden and then took to the road for shows under the big top in a different town each day. The parades, the rail travel, and the weather made for a difficult life for man and beast.  By December 1900, Billboard magazine ran this short note:

Out of thirty camels purchased by the John Robinson Shows last spring, all have died save six.

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Other circus troupes preferred horses that were better suited for the temperate climate of North America. In the 1890s Dan Rice's Circus parade had a bandwagon pulled by a team of 40 horses. The top photo shows the 40 matched draft horses arranged in 10 hitches of 4 horses, and all controlled some 80 feet away by a master wagon driver. Such champion teamsters were renown in their day for their skill to hold twenty pairs of reins and manage the direction and speed of so many horses. The same horsepower might help with hauling the canvas tents to the fair grounds, and later appear in part of the circus performance. 

The lower photo shows the ornately carved and gilded wagons of the Forepaugh-Sells Bros. Circus preparing to leave the lot during the season of 1899. I believe they are the menagerie wagons with the various circus animals, and the bandwagon may be on the right in the back. There are at least 10 wagons in this assembly and there were probably many more since one wagon has the number 61 on the back.

In the Kalamazoo Gazette of August 8, 1899 there was a large advertisement for the Adam Forepaugh & Sells Brothers Circus. Like the Robinson Circus, it described itself as the biggest and best, with a collection of 1,000 wild and trained animals, including Woodward's Seal & Sea Lion Orchestra. Now that's high class music!

I like to imagine that my gal from Kalamazoo, Mary Spohn Berghuis, whom you met last week, went to see this show. Did she wish she was playing cornet in the band?

Note that the tents of  the Forepaugh-Sells Circus were as absolutely waterproof as the John Robinson circus tents.

Kalamazoo Gazette - August 8, 1899

Both of these 5" x 7" photos are reproductions, but vintage reproductions that have an interesting photography history. They were originally part of the catalog of Charles Bernard of Savannah, Georgia. Mr. Bernard (1862-1936) was a former circus performer and traveling show agent, and in the 1920s and 30s he had a mail order business in old photographs of American circus groups. Some of the photos may not have been taken with his own camera, but he reproduced them in his own dark room, and sold them to circus fans and memorabilia collectors who wanted to remember the days of the great circuses, which were now fast disappearing. He was also a prolific writer on circus history and stories, and was featured in several show business magazines and newspapers. Today he would have a blog.

Though he did not live to see it established, he is considered one of the founders of the Circus Historical Society , which is one of the greatest history archives on the web. Shortly after his death in 1936, Charles Bernard's photos and negatives were sold to Robert Good of Allentown, PA and James Schonblom of Bradford, PA who both continued to sell these circus photos by mail order in the 1940s and 50s. That is where I suspect these two photos came from, so they are vintage reproductions of reproductions.

advert  from Circus Scrapbook - JULY 1930

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Kalamazoo Gazette - June 1, 1900

In June of 1900, Kalamazoo was on the route of the John Robinson Circus. The   Kalamazoo Gazette gave a review which described the 14 camels pulling the bandwagon, (and assisted by a single team of horses that did most of the real work). 

The report may have used material provided by a circus agent or advance man like Charles Bernard, but it begins with a fine poem to this traveling wonder that was once part of  American culture.

It's nice to know that Mary Spohn Berghuis could expect that with this circus, 
"There are no Noxious Insects in its Red Lemonade!"

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This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
it is animal stories and more this weekend.


Nigel Aspdin (Derby, UK) said...

I am keeping my camel team for next Saturday...sorry for the suspense. Now, as for that 40 horse team, when I was about 10 my father gave me a diary he had been sent as advertising, and it was for a company named Borax or similar, and I never forgot the mule team logo of that company. Maybe you still use it in the US, for whitening your evening dress collar for concerts?

Wendy said...

I was never a fan of the circus until I visited the Ringling Museum and the Ringling mansion in Sarasota, Florida, a couple years ago. I had just finished reading "Water for Elephants," so I was in a circus mood for quite some time. Life in the circus was glamorous and sordid, exciting and dangerous. Seeing a parade of exotic animals coming down the street surely filled everyone with amazement. Who wouldn't have wanted to run away with the circus?

Anonymous said...

I have a very distinct memory of the circus setting up in an empty field in my town, about 1974 in Southern California. My grandmother took us to see the show because we could walk and there was only one big street to cross. To this day I hate clowns and the circus, altho I don't recall exactly what trauma planted this in my mind. :-)

Sharon said...

When I was a child, I loved the circus. However I went to a travelling circus a few years ago and was very disappointed.

anyjazz said...

Some fine research there. I have always wondered how a circus could survive with all the personnel and upkeep. So many skills involved, including the trainers, travel and set up. Good post!

Karen S. said...

This is a marvelous researched post again, and for once I even know a bit about what you shared. The Kalamazoo and Forepaughs! Great photos as always, thanks for sharing, I like how you tied it all in. This is a great theme and I'm sorry that this week just didn't permit time for me to put one together!

Kristin said...

I wonder if wrapping up the camels in all those blankets helped hasten their demise. Glad the lemonade was bug free! Wonder what the usual glass looked like at other circuses.

Postcardy said...

It's too bad that there doesn't seem to be anything comparable today to the old fashioned circus, but it's good that there isn't as much mistreatment of circus animals.

Little Nell said...

Ah now Mike, we DO see trains of camels here everyday. Living in Lanzarote I can venture out to see them being walked back to their stables every day from Timanfaya Park should I so wish. Have a look at this (non-Sepia) post I did, called Capturing Animals. I think ours are pretty well looked after and don't die off at the rate of the circus ones.

No noxious insects here either!

Bob Scotney said...

I have shots of my wifr and I on a camel trek in Nell's Lanzarote - do 4 camels make a train? The circus parades must have been very impressive in their day. I have never seen anything like them.

tony said...

Imagine The Excitement of knowing the Circus was coming to town! And the sadness of seeing it leaving......

Joan said...

What a fun post! My grandfather Sigford was brought up in Mt Morris, Wisconsin, which is not far from Baraboo, where many circus groups wintered. I never have figured out why a circus would winter in Wisconsin, but I think that was where family was located. My grandfather used to go to watch the tumblers and pick up a few tricks. Your post tweaked all sorts of memories for me.

Brett Payne said...

The first postcard had me looking for a caravanserai. Robinson's circus must have been a logistical nightmare to organise, the actual performance being such a tiny part of all that went on.

I knew that the heyday for huge circus ensembles was pretty much over by the 1920s, but it was still odd to read that there was already a thriving market for circus ephemera and memorabilia at that time.

There must be a story behind the "noxious insects in the red lemonade."

Helen Bauch McHargue said...

These circus people exaggerated the hyperbole! However in my memory the circus coming around, even as late as the 50's, was indeed the greatest and most exciting event imaginable.

Liz Needle said...

p with a circus theme, but our circuses were much smaller affairs and I couldn't find a lot of photos. Thanks for your very interesting ones.

I like to think that your Mary would most certainly have gone to the circus. After all she was a musician and artiste too.


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